In this week's New Statesman: Christmas issue, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins

In conversation with Christopher Hitchens | Carol Ann Duffy interview | Bill Gates | Philip Pullma

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To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

In this 100-page special Christmas issue, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins brings together some of the world's leading scientists, thinkers and writers. Dawkins has contributed an essay, "The tyranny of the discontinuous mind", written the New Statesman leader column -- an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister on faith schools -- and travelled to Texas to conduct an exclusive interview with the author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. They discuss religious fundamentalism, US politics, Tony Blair, abortion and Christmas.

Microsoft's Bill Gates has written a column on the wonders of innovation, the political theorist Alan Ryan has written on Barack Obama, and there are contributions from some of the world's most respected scientists, including Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, and the space explorer Carolyn Porco. Dawkins has also commissioned essays from the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris -- reuniting in the NS the "Four Horsemen" of New Atheism -- on human loyalty and free will, respectively.

Other contributors to the special issue include the human rights activist Maryam Namazie, the comedian Tim Minchin and the rabbi and broadcaster Jonathan Romain.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, speaks to the NS assistant editor Sophie Elmhirst about choosing morals over politics, reading poems at Occupy St Paul's and her "Christmassy relationship" with God, Philip Pullman defends fairytales and Kate Atkinson offers an exclusive short story, "darktime".

All this, plus the annual NS Quiz and regular sections including Raphael Behr in the Politics column on the Eurosceptic vision, guest writer Douglas Alexander offers to work with the Lib Dems over Europe, Christmas reviews from Rachel Cooke, Andrew Billen and Will Self in the Critics, and a poem, "Madam", by the late New Statesman contributor, Christopher Logue.

Richard Dawkins says:

To guest-edit a great magazine with the status of a national treasure is the literary equivalent of being invited to imagine your ideal dinner party - Christmas dinner, in this case - and then of actually being allowed to send out real invitations to your dream companions. Every acceptance is like a present off the Christmas tree, gratefully unwrapped and treasured.

At the same time, I couldn't help being daunted by the New Statesman's historic reputation for serious, well-written radical commentary, and by the need in my literary Christmas dinner to temper merriment with gravitas.

We have no reindeer, but four horsemen; no single star of wonder and no astrologers bearing gifts, but a gifted star of astronomy who knows wonder when she sees it; no kings from the east, but the modern equivalent of a king from the west; and wise men - and women - all around the table. Please join us at the feast.

Richard Dawkins guest edit of New Statesman

To subscribe to the New Statesman or purchase this special issue, click here

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.